Friday, July 30, 2010

I.v. Swearing Oaths

The Act will end with a swearing ritual, forcing Hamlet's friends not to reveal what they know of the Ghost's appearance, even as the prince takes on the appearance (whether feigned or not) of a madman. For the play's directors, one of the challenges is the representation of the Ghost moving and speaking from under the stage (meant to represent hell). In a stage presentation, the audience might be aware of the fact the sound comes from the floor, but watching film versions on a television doesn't quite allow for it. Special effects may come in handy, but many choose to simply use voice-over and let Hamlet's words and actions infer that it is coming from the ground. Directors and actors will also have to decide what to make of Hamlet's "wild and whirling words". Is he starting to go mad, or crafting an improvised performance before his friends' eyes (and ours)? One thing is certain. Regardless of whether or not Hamlet is mad or not after seeing the Ghost, the latter must exist. We're reminded once again that Hamlet is not the only one who sees and hears it.

Let's delve deeper into the text itself (in italics):

MARCELLUS HORATIO: [Within] My lord, my lord,--
MARCELLUS: [Within] Lord Hamlet,--
HORATIO: [Within] Heaven secure him!
HAMLET: So be it!
HORATIO: [Within] Hillo, ho, ho, my lord!
HAMLET: Hillo, ho, ho, boy! come, bird, come.

MARCELLUS: How is't, my noble lord?
HORATIO: What news, my lord?
HAMLET: O, wonderful!
HORATIO: Good my lord, tell it.
HAMLET: No; you'll reveal it.
HORATIO: Not I, my lord, by heaven.
MARCELLUS: Nor I, my lord.
HAMLET: How say you, then; would heart of man once think it?
But you'll be secret?
HORATIO MARCELLUS: Ay, by heaven, my lord.
HAMLET: There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark
But he's an arrant knave.

I've always felt that there was an ambiguity to these lines. Is the knavish villain Claudius? Or it is Hamlet himself? The Ghost has, in a way, created a new villain in Denmark. Part of why Hamlet delays the murder of his uncle is that (and we've often spoken of his puritanism) murder is a sin. Though he was quick to swear revenge, the whole of the play has Hamlet working out how he can commit such an act (and abase himself to the level of Claudius - smiling and being a villain) in spite of his conscience. Even if we do not subscribe to Hamlet actually being mad, there is a dramatic insanity at work where a character cannot reconcile who he is and what he must do. This is dramatized further in the swearing ritual that is to come.

HORATIO: There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave
To tell us this.
HAMLET: Why, right; you are i' the right;
And so, without more circumstance at all,
I hold it fit that we shake hands and part:
You, as your business and desire shall point you;
For every man has business and desire,
Such as it is; and for mine own poor part,
Look you, I'll go pray.

Hamlet tries to protect his friends from what he is to become, but they will not allow him to leave without more explanation. It is significant that Hamlet talks about praying here, but pray to what?

HORATIO: These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.
HAMLET: I'm sorry they offend you, heartily;
Yes, 'faith heartily.
HORATIO: There's no offence, my lord.
HAMLET: Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio,
And much offence too. Touching this vision here,
It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you:

Hamlet at least believes the tale of murder (because it fits his own feelings towards Claudius), but the strange, indecorous way he treats the Ghost in the next lines indicates he does not necessarily trust the Ghost's motives. Hamlet knows that by the action he has sworn to, he has damned his soul. The Ghost is at once his father's spirit AND a goblin damned.

For your desire to know what is between us,
O'ermaster 't as you may. And now, good friends,
As you are friends, scholars and soldiers,
Give me one poor request.
HORATIO: What is't, my lord? we will.
HAMLET: Never make known what you have seen to-night.
HORATIO MARCELLUS: My lord, we will not.
HAMLET: Nay, but swear't.
HORATIO: In faith,
My lord, not I.
MARCELLUS: Nor I, my lord, in faith.
HAMLET: Upon my sword.
MARCELLUS: We have sworn, my lord, already.
HAMLET: Indeed, upon my sword, indeed.
GHOST: [Beneath] Swear.
HAMLET: Ah, ha, boy! say'st thou so? art thou there,

As soon as the Ghost makes its voice known and forces Horatio and Marcellus to swear to silence, Hamlet puts its honesty in doubt, calling it "boy" and ironically, "truepenny". Later it is a "fellow in the cellarage", and an "old mole". Hamlet (and the staging) treats the Ghost as the Devil, and the swearing ritual thus becomes a kind of pact with the Devil. Hamlet is to lose his soul in this (compare to Horatio's invocation of angels upon the prince's death). What we're seeing is a kind of Satanic ritual that pledges Hamlet's life to the underworld.

Come on--you hear this fellow in the cellarage--
Consent to swear.
HORATIO: Propose the oath, my lord.
HAMLET: Never to speak of this that you have seen,
Swear by my sword.
GHOST: [Beneath] Swear.
HAMLET: Hic et ubique? then we'll shift our ground.
Come hither, gentlemen,
And lay your hands again upon my sword:
Never to speak of this that you have heard,
Swear by my sword.
GHOST: [Beneath] Swear.
HAMLET: Well said, old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good friends.
HORATIO: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
HAMLET: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come;

Some directors prefer "in our philosophy". I've come across both wordings, and we'll have occasion to discuss what difference this makes as we tackle the different adaptations. Horatio is here called a "stranger", which goes with his ignorance of Danish custom in the previous scene. Of course, all of Denmark has now become an alien land, one in which the supernatural is very real, shaking the foundations of Horatio's educated philosophy which denies superstition.

Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on,

Does Hamlet tell them his plan to put on a crazy act, or does he warn them that he's going mad?

That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber'd thus, or this headshake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As 'Well, well, we know,' or 'We could, an if we would,'
Or 'If we list to speak,' or 'There be, an if they might,'
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me: this not to do,

It sometimes seems like the play has also sworn this, and will not give a definitive answer. Horatio and Marcellus swear not to tell us the truth of Hamlet (and it's clear that Horatio is told a lot more than what is said in this scene), and so we never really do. If the play is Horatio's telling of it at the very end, there are still missing pieces. He hasn't been freed from his pledge entirely.

So grace and mercy at your most need help you, Swear.
GHOST: [Beneath] Swear.
HAMLET: Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!

They swear.

So, gentlemen,
With all my love I do commend me to you:
And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do, to express his love and friending to you,
God willing, shall not lack. Let us go in together;
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let's go together.


In the act's final rhyming couplet, Hamlet fully realizes he is doomed. Time is so out of joint that another line follows the couplet, which breaks Shakespeare's usual form. The next batch of articles will look at how this sequence was adapted for the screen.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I.v. The Ghost's Tale - French Rock Opera

Johnny Hallyday covers this sequence with not one, but three entire songs. Prière du spectre à Hamlet (The Ghost Prays Hamlet) has the Ghost asking Hamlet to avenge him. Roi vivant (Living King) represents the bulk of the Ghost's story. And J'effacerai de ma mémoire (I Will Erase From my Memory) deals with Hamlet swearing to avenge his father. Each title is linked to the song on you-tube for your listening pleasure. As usual, the full text of each song and its pedestrian translation (for clarity's and not art's sake) follow:

Prière du spectre à Hamlet
Une ombre qui venait de l’ombre
Une ombre noire, une ombre sombre
Une ombre a crié, «oh, venge-moi»
Une ombre qui apparaissait de l’ombre
D’un roi du royaume des ombres
Une ombre a crié «oh, venge-moi»
Une ombre qui sortait de terre
Une ombre en forme de mon père
Une ombre a crié «oh, venge-moi»

The Ghost Prays Hamlet
A shadow that came out of shadow
A black shadow, a somber shadow
A shadow cried "O, avenge me!"
A shadow that appeared from shadow
Of a king of the realm of shadows
A shadow cried "O, avenge me!"
A shadow that came out of the earth
A shadow in the shape of my father
A shadow cried "O, avenge me!"

The song starts out as the "Le vieux roi est mort/The Old King Is Dead" dirge, but as soon as Hallyday starts singing, a blues-pop feel comes in to thwart expectations. The song describes the Ghost as a shadow, dark and hellish. Only in the last couples lines is it revealed to be the father of Hamlet, and even there, Hallyday doesn't let go of the Ghost's ambiguity. It is a shadow in the SHAPE of his father, which doesn't make it his actual father. As with Hamlet's questioning of Horatio's story in Scene 2, the Ghost is required to convince the doubting Hamlet. In the play, by giving the details of his murder; in the rock opera, with another song.

In fact, Roi vivant, though on a separate track with its own title, musically just continues straight from Prière, the last note of one covering the starting piano riffs. It sounds like another movement of the same piece, with backup singers coming in with their part, and indeed it is. It's all the same scene.

Roi vivant
Pars pas, il veut savoir
Pars pas, oui ton histoire
Pars pas, il veut te voir
"Sur mon coeur de roi dormant
Ils ont posé un serpent
Dans ma vie de roi vivant
Il a planté ses crocs blanc
Et mon coeur de roi dormant
N’a plus été coeur battant
Roi vivant, roi dormant
Roi mourant, roi d'antan

Living King
Don't go, he wants to know
Don't go, yes your story
Don't go, he wants to see you
"On my sleeping king's heart
They put a snake
In my living king's life
It planted its white fangs
And my sleeping king's heart
Was no longer a beating heart"
Living king, sleeping king
Dying king, king of old

The first tree lines are sung by the chorus, outside voices commenting on the action (where most songs are in Hamlet's voice). They ask the Ghost to stay and tell his story, a different take on "I will not go further" that turns it into Hamlet's first "test" of the Ghost's agenda. Hamlet takes noting at face value, and here doubts his father(?)'s words. He needs proof in the form of details. Do these details ring true? An interesting thing that's done in these opening lines is that "Pars pas" (Don't go) sounds a lot like "Papa", calling out to the father through the sounds of the words.

The section in quotation marks is spoken, rather than sung, in the Ghost's voice. The music evokes courtly medieval music, and so the past. It tells the story of the murder, but does not reveal the murderer's identity. Either the audience's knowledge of the play is taken for granted or it becomes more of a murder mystery (not that there are many suspects other than Claudius, seeing as the songs uniformly look down on him). Possibly, had the rock opera been successfully staged, the action on stage would have made it clear. The poison is represented by a snake, continuing the Garden of Eden metaphor from the play ("oh what a falling off was there"), with a strong play on the epithets, each one used as a punchy reveal (in French coming after the noun). The practice continues in the next section as acoustic guitar riffs and the chorus take over. Those last lines take Hamlet Sr. from living king to forgotten king in four short phrases, then repeat them in a fade, cycling towards an actual end and sending the Ghost back into shadow.

J'effacerai de ma mémoire
J’effacerai de ma mémoire
Tout mes souvenirs d’enfant
Depuis couper le cordon
Jusqu’à ma première dent

J’effacerai de ma mémoire
Mes souvenirs de jeunesse
Depuis mes derniers boutons
Jusqu’à ma première caresse

J’effacerai de ma memoire
Depuis mon premier jour
Jusqu’à la nuit qui vient
Et dans le livre de mon histoire
Les pages deviendront blanches
Du début jusqu’au mot fin

J’effacerai de ma mémoire
Tous me souvenirs d’amour
Depuis mon dernier « je t ‘aime »
Jusqu’à mon premier « toujours »

J’effacerai de ma mémoire
Tous mes souvenirs d’hier
Depuis mon premier poême
Jusqu’à ma dernière guerre

J’effacerai de ma memoire
Mes souvenirs de demain
Et ma tête se videra
Je serai fou, enfin

J’effacerai même ma mémoire
Et le néant s’ouvrira
Mais je ne t’oublierai pas
J’y plongerai avec toi

I Will Erase From my Memory
I will erase from my memory
All my memories of childhood
From the cutting of the cord
To my first tooth

I will erase from my memory
All my memories of youth
From my last pimples
To my first caress

I will erase from my memory
From my first day
To the night that comes
And in the book of my history
The pages will become white
From the beginning to the word end

I will erase from my memory
All my memories of love
From my last "I love you"
To my first "always"

I will erase from my memory
All my memories of yesterday
From my first poem
To my last war

I will erase from my memory
All my memories of tomorrow
And my head will empty itself
I will be mad, finally

I will erase from my memory
And the void will open
But I won't forget you
I will dive into it with you

Hallyday takes the table of memory metaphor and runs with it. Though in the play, Hamlet enumerates what he erases from his memory to make room for his revenge, Hallyday gets more specific, in a way that only the ballad form can. He erases his childhood, then his youth, and so on, until he's actually erasing his future, dooming himself. He has no future except as an instrument of his father's revenge (of course, we know he's not able to respect that promise). In the last stanza, he jumps into the void to join with his father, making their "missions" one and the same by osmosis. This mirrors what is usually done in the play, with Hamlet collapsing at the end of the sequence. The empty space he has created in his mind is akin to the empty space under the earth where his father is doomed to walk (at the very least empty of God's love, in Christian cosmology). The next time we see Hamlet in the rock opera, he will have gone mad, as heralded here. Hallyday leaves little room for ambiguity on that point.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I.v. The Ghost's Tale - Classics Illustrated

The original
With its "for boys" fixation, the original Classics Illustrated adaptation gives over almost two pages to the Ghost's meeting with Hamlet, removing entirely the prince's lines at the end when he is alone. The flashback to the murder does include an interesting component we haven't seen elsewhere: How the Queen learned of her husband's death.For the sake of efficiency (and these comics are very compressed and efficient), she sees the body and Claudius is lurking in the background. This puts the brother and the queen in the line (as well as life and a crown) in the same tableau. Though the comic doesn't dwell on psychological verisimilitude, we might wonder what kind of impact this discovery would have on Gertrude. Indeed, part of why she is considered to be underwritten is that she never really talks about Hamlet Sr. except to tell Hamlet to forget about him. If events were as pictured here, we might justify this omission by saying she is in denial, keeping that image out of her mind, even refusing to bring it up. Either way, she has HAD to move on for the good of the State and may be pragmatic where Hamlet is sentimental.

With Hamlet's subsequent speech cut, we have no way to know if he has fallen into madness, or even if he has sworn to avenge his father's murder. Such things will, one surmises, be revealed visually later.

The Berkley version
In the more modern, painted version, the Ghost leads Hamlet to an elevated blasted wood, not unlike the hellish forest of Branagh's Hamlet.
Note the way the Ghost's speech is represented, with letters that do not follow a straight line and shaky speech bubbles with chaotic contours. We might imagine this iconography makes the Ghost's voice echo in an unearthly way. Artist Tom Mandrake makes good use of lettering later as well when he has Hamlet whisper certain lines thanks to smaller script. "O my prophetic soul", for example, is spoken under his breath, denoting a sudden realization. His beard streaks away as if part and parcel of the fog, something Mandrake uses strikingly in the body of the speech.
There is no flashback sequence here. Mandrake instead gives us the figure of the Ghost posing with his sword. Is he offering an avenging blade to Hamlet? Threatening him with it? Visually recreating the "serpent's sting"? Usually, Hamlet has the sword and swears by it. By holding the sword in this scene, the Ghost more firmly contrasts its action with Hamlet's inaction. Or you could say that while the Ghost is mentally able to take revenge, it is not physically able to. For Hamlet, it turns out to be the reverse.

Two other things of note: First, this is another instance of Hamlet stealing the "O horrible" line. Second, the speech ends early, and the Ghost does not scent the morning air. More importantly, he does not admonish Hamlet to leave his mother alone. So in this version of the story, when Hamlet is bitter and cruel towards his mother, he's not ignoring his father's edict. The very next line, indeed, attacks Gertrude.
Though the words are cut, Hamlet still "couples hell", a very wet one by the looks of things. The rank garden is a filthy swamp, and there Hamlet sees his uncle. I don't think we have a fouler hell-coupling image in any other adaptation. Hamlet really gets down and dirty.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I.v. The Ghost's Tale - The Banquet

Because it doesn't use the integral text (or even all of the plot) ot Shakespeare's original, I do not return to China's The Banquet very often, but some of its staging does at times deserve mention. Such is the case with the completely visual way Hamlet gets his mission from the Ghost. The Ghost does not truly appear in this film, but it does manifest itself. Earlier, Hamlet had paid homage to his father's armor and we saw it weeping blood. That was the only hint of something supernatural going on in the story. It does not communicate anything to Hamlet at that point.

Later, Hamlet is resting on a fountain inside the palace when a piece of cloth wafts down from above, right down to the prince's hand. The images on the cloth depict his father's murder.
That is a very efficient way to stage the scene, especially for audiences who already know the story. As audiences grow more used to elliptical story-telling (as evidenced by modern editing sensibilities, for example), such shortcuts may become more common, even in the theater (where technology may be able to show details actors alone cannot). In a version of Hamlet where the Ghost does not really appear or speak, the audience is left to puzzle out what is happening and why the prince is acting in such a way. There are enough mentions of the murder after this point that we know the basics, and the play within a play would reveal the particular details, bringing the image on the cloth into focus.

Early ambiguity would give way to satisfying revelations, as Shakespeare proves once again how impervious he is to cuts.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I.v. The Ghost's Tale - Tennant (2009)

Hamlet follows the Ghost into the mist-shrouded main set to confront his father's spirit. The Ghost is very angry at first, but mellows as the scene continues. Patrick Stewart's performance gets especially interesting when he starts telling the story of the murder, and seems to relive it. In the absence of a flashback sequence (which you would not normally have the luxury of in a stage production), this recreates the events without having to mime them. "O horrible", then, is the Ghost's entry into hell as he's experiencing it once more. When this Ghost talks of the morning air, he does not find it threatening, but more like a nostalgic memory. Here is what he has lost. Not only his life, crown and queen, but to never again see the sun rise or experience the joys of nature. This is a man who used to sleep in the outdoors and who uses a lot of animal imagery. He has a kinship with the land (and as king, is a symbol for it) from which he has been divorced.
As with the other two modern dress adaptations examined by this series, the Ghost's manifestation is a solid, physical one. He grabs Hamlet and almost throttles him when supplicating him to "bear it not", a gesture that turns into a final embrace before he leaves in a puff of smoke, taking the supernatural mists with him.

What follows is Hamlet's transformation. He collapses and starts running his fingers through his hair. By going from the perfect haircut of the early scenes to the wild, more modern style Doctor Who fans know and love so well, Tennant physicalizes the character's new wildness, of not outright madness. And there is reason to believe director Gregory Doran means for his Hamlet to be mad, with an odd jump cut in the middle of the scene creating a disjointed look. I'm not entirely sure it works as a piece of editing, but nonetheless, the effect is appropriately off-putting.
Hamlet's crazy eyes and smile are equally so, and when he says "That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain", he's definitely talking about himself as much as Claudius. He will now smile, act the madman and appear disarming, but he is in truth a villain, a would-be murderer. This is Hamlet coming up with the madness idea, and I wonder why I never really picked up on that line before, because it seems so natural here. Hamlet goes on to swear his oath, not upon a kiss on his sword, but by slashing a switchblade through the palm of his hand and collapses again.
A much more violent swearing, and one that is informed by more modern scenes of this ilk in other media. It speaks both to his madness (self-harm is not sane) and to the seriousness of his oath (that he is ready to shed his own blood to achieve his revenge), as well as provide a shock ending to this sequence. The idea that Hamlet even carries such a weapon tells us he is able to kill. When staged in more ancient times, this isn't needed, but in a modern dress adaptation, the audience expects such violence less. The audience tends to assume modern morality and law are a part of such a world, especially in the protagonist.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

I.v. The Ghost's Tale - Fodor (2007)

Fodor's more experimental treatment gives us another very physical Ghost, but this one is unsympathetic, violent and malevolent. From the moment he appears, he's striking his son and grabbing him by the hair. How creepy is this Ghost when it smiles whenever it speaks of murder and transforms every act of fatherly affection into tense violence (such as when it pinches Hamlet's cheek, hard)? As we discussed in Scene 4, the Ghost here is more devil than man. Has hell corrupted his soul or was he always this kind of a man? Is he, in fact, a demon sent to damn Hamlet, entirely justifying the prince's delays? It may turn out that the Ghost was right about Claudius, but does it truly want revenge for its own sake, or is it just an opportunity for Satan to collect some extra souls? You'll note that this Ghost never says the "O horrible" lines, perhaps quite happy to walk into the fires of hell.

Sound design does a lot of the work here. The Ghost's words have a whispery echo, but you can also hear every wet sound to come out of the actor's mouth. It's almost stomach-churning.

More cuts
Because the first confrontation between Hamlet and his parents was cut, we have a Hamlet who harbors no particular resentment towards Claudius. The murder, for him, is a complete surprise. Therefore, he doesn't say "my prophetic soul" when the murderer's identity is spoken. That's an important shift in the play, as it doesn't taint Hamlet's motivation with a certain sense of wish fulfillment. In the text, there is reason to believe that Hamlet imagines the Ghost (after all, the thing never speaks except to him, what if it is a vision and never really speaks at all?) because it sends him exactly on the mission he wants to undertake already. It justifies his own murderous impulse. Here, he had no such bent.

The ambiguity of Hamlet's motivation is restored by the way the scene ends, not with the usual swearing speech, but by the voice of Horatio who pulls him out of his reverie. This was all in his mind and he hasn't moved from his waiting position. It's still night (no "morning air"). It was all in his head. It's a perfectly reasonable way for a spirit to communicate with the living, but if it was an unmotivated hallucination, then Hamlet may well be mad. And yet, because he has no prior negative feelings for Claudius (at least, on screen), there doesn't seem to be a reason for his imagination to act up this way. Fodor does tend to take a problem play and give it more problems.

Friday, July 16, 2010

I.v. The Ghost's Tale - Hamlet 2000

Sam Shepard is without a doubt my favorite Ghost and the power of his performance in this scene probably has a great deal to do with why it only suffered nips and tucks where other speeches in this version were ruthlessly cut down. His is a very physical Ghost, starting on Hamlet's balcony and waiting for him to open the door before he enters. He doesn't walk through walls. He's not accompanied by mists. And he's able to corner Hamlet, grab him, literalize the image of the prince's hair standing on end by physically grabbing it, and ending on an emotional hug before vanishing (off-camera) without going back to the door. This is the only real manifestation of his being a spirit. There need be no special effects when the simple act of holding a handkerchief to his poisoned ear is creepy enough, stigmata revealing details of his murder.

Shepard presents a complex Ghost, haunted by his prison house. His voice breaks when he speaks of being merciful to Gertrude. He is restrained, full of fury, but always catching himself before he goes too far. He does so just before "But soft, brief let me be", as if realizing that he's off on a rant, that he let his emotions get the better of him. The Ghost becomes a threefold mirror in this scene. Of course, he's a mirror of Hamlet himself. How far as the apple fallen from the tree? Will Hamlet let his own emotions run rampant, or will he, like his father, hold them in before taking a step too far? As always, he's a mirror for Claudius, his brother and false father to Hamlet. Claudius too holds back his true self and only lets it out when emotion overwhelms him. And then there's Polonius, another father who says he will be brief while uttering the most interminable speeches. Polonius is a fool because he does not "catch himself" as Hamlet Sr. does. While the Ghost imparts the "argument of the play", Polonius has it all wrong and gives a false argument to the king and queen. Through the repeated word "brief" (a pun, as both scenes are a sort of briefing?), Shakespeare links the two expositions. However, he makes one relevant and the other irrelevant.
Shepard's performance is touching, but there remains a sense of danger throughout. He is in Hamlet's face throughout as the prince tries to back away. The camera follows them around the room, slightly spinning, lending a giddy energy to the scene that could well represent Hamlet's impending madness.

When the Ghost disappears, this sequence ends without Hamlet's lone speech. Parts of it show up in Act I's ultimate sequence, in voice-over, but we don't see Hamlet swearing to avenge his father's murder. This is merely (but efficiently) inferred.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I.v.The Ghost's Tale - Kline (1990)

Kline offers another sympathetic Ghost in Robert Murch, again without armor, though he does have a sword and is in full military dress. The Ghost here is sad, but not particularly tormented, and if anything, is cut down even more than in Zeffirelli's version. The scene passes by very quickly, with none of the subtleties of Scofield's similarly sympathetic Ghost. Details and images are of course cut, as is the opening dialog, but notably, a line like "And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge, To prick and sting her". What we lose here is much of the Ghost's interior life. We no longer know his ambivalence towards Gertrude's role in the adultery. We don't know how he feels about Purgatory/Hell. And as in Zeffirelli's version, there is no ambiguity to the father-son relationship.

I dislike Kline's performance a great deal through most of this scene. His over-the-top delivery of lines is in stark opposition to Hamlet's own advice to the Players, and his emotions do not seem to fit the moment. For him, the big revelation is that Claudius seduced Gertrude, but he already knew this. Learning of the murder, he relishes the coming revenge, and then seems almost happy that it's Claudius. Not a bad take on it, truth be told, but Hamlet is still shocked at the wrong piece of news. Hamlet steals "O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!" for himself, robbing the Ghost of some anguish (again, Kline frustratingly chews the scenery with it). As the Ghost leaves, the two characters reach for one another and... connect! This is a rather solid Ghost compared to most interpretations, perhaps a side-effect of being so stagy. The Ghost then simply walks off-stage. No camera tricks. No special effects.
Hamlet then falls to the ground, progressively making us fear for his sanity. There's a great effect as the actor merges with his shadow, a veritable coupling with hell created by the lighting. Hamlet becomes this amorphous creature, his dark self exposed and combining with him. It underscores the lines "I'll wipe away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, That youth and observation copied there". Here, Shakespeare wipes the slate clean. Hamlet rewrites his own character (which is the triumph of the play). Hamlet overwrites his own psychology, and a new man shall emerge. Is this insanity or a new form of sanity? Hamlet is the self-made, self-written man. And he must finish his oeuvre (himself) before he can fulfill his destiny. He can only revenge his father when he is ready, and he is not ready until he is complete as a character. Shakespeare will have him think about a large number of things (mortality, love, art, etc.) before taking him to his ultimate end. For Kline, the end of the old Hamlet and the start of the new would probably be the end of this section, as Hamlet passes out again, plunging backwards into the unknown.

But before we get to that, there is some manic behavior on show. In particular, when Hamlet says "uncle, there you are", he points into the audience. Having wiped everything from his mind except his revenge, he sees Claudius everywhere. The story of Hamlet will now be how he creates the pieces of his mind (as opposed to putting pieces back together again) to come out of the madness he just created for himself. Madness as the incomplete self.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I.v.The Ghost's Tale - Zeffirelli (1990)

Hamlet runs up to the highest platform in Elsinore, and there he finds the Ghost skulking in a dark corner. The opening dialog is one of the many cuts made to this scene, so Hamlet does not here stop the Ghost in its tracks. There is no ambiguity about the spirit's intentions, he's not bringing him towards the edge. In fact, Paul Scofield may just be the most sympathetic Ghost ever committed to film. He does not appear in armor (lines relating to this were all cut), but as a sad and weak old man (not unlike his portrayal of the French King in Branagh's Henry V). There is anguish in his voice and defeat in his posture. Hamlet is visibly moved by all this, Mel Gibson keeping the Danish prince's emotions always very close to the surface.

The Ghost's speech is very much cut down, and being as long as it is, it was a natural place for the director to do so. Of course, anytime you cut text, you might hurt the play's meaning. In this case, "Brief let me be" is the order of business from the start, as the Ghost gets right down to the business of recounting his murder. One of the things that changes is the relationship between father and son. In the text, the Ghost is much more severe. He tests and judges his son ("I find thee apt") and in many ways, manipulates him into avenging his murder. He repeatedly forbids Hamlet from forgetting him, perhaps sensing that his son is not the most proactive of people. Most of that is lost in this version, leaving us with a more trustworthy and less ambiguous Ghost. He doesn't flaunt his own virtues at the expense of Claudius'. He doesn't overegg the vile details of his murder.

The text has been slashed, but Scofield takes it and creates a memorable performance with it. You feel for this Ghost in a way you usually don't. At the end, he reaches with both hands towards Hamlet, and one tear drops off his face.
Hamlet closes his eyes, and the touch never comes. The Ghost is gone by the time he opens them again. Gibson's Hamlet feels everything viscerally, and is enraged by this revelation. He runs down to look once upon on his uncle's party, where he raves and rants, out of earshot. Zeffirelli uses the castle's geography to create strong staging for this part of the scene. When Hamlet goes on about that "pernicious woman", he's looking down on her. "So, uncle, there you are" likewise sets Hamlet's eyes on the object of his rage. On "meet it is I set it down", Hamlet physically writes his thought in the stones with his sword.
Writing that turns into violent, but ineffectual, slashing. Seeing Hamlet in such a rage begs a question. Why does he later have so much difficulty carrying out his revenge? It seems that had Claudius been just a little closer, he might have died right then and there. This might be an important chink in this version's armor. While effective movie-making, the performance may not make sense according to the text. Did Hamlet want the revenge to fit the crime better? Did he want to see Claudius suffer more? Are there political reasons for not doing it "pat"? (Zeffirelli removes most of the political context from the play, so that's a hard sell.) Whatever the reason for the delay (and we'll have a chance to discuss the possibilities in the coming weeks), it allows doubt to creep into Hamlet's mind, leading to tragedy. But the director will have to justify his vision of a Hamlet with far less self-control.

Friday, July 9, 2010

I.v.The Ghost's Tale - BBC (1980)

The BBC version with Derek Jacobi features another Ghost heading for the edge of the cliff before Hamlet puts the breaks on it. So again, we have an ambiguous spirit who may or may not want to doom Hamlet (either way, it does by the play's end). Patrick Allen is a rather stern Ghost, speaking with anger more than torment, in clipped, authoritarian tones. He is a soldier in full armor, but is this also how we should understand the father-son relationship? A severe taskmaster for whom things are black and white and who entertains no questions? He only breaks at "O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!", moving from anger to genuine sadness at his wife's situation. It's like he regrets what poor Gertrude is going through, being defiled without really knowing it by her husband's murderer.

There may be a production-based reason for the Ghost's clipped speech pattern. This is a very theatrical production with little to no special effects. The whole effect is achieved with a little dry ice, some blue lights reflecting off the armor, and absolutely no treatment on the voice. There certainly isn't a flashback sequence. So we may understand from this why an actor would choose to run through the speech as quickly as possible, before the audience gets restless at what is essentially the play's biggest infodump. Allen has at least found a way to do this that sounds natural.

As for Hamlet, he is obviously shaken by the Ghost's appearance, reaching for it ineffectually almost through the whole thing. When he learns the identity of his father's murderer, he shows no surprise. Disgust for the individual comes easily. The one clear thing in his life is his hatred for Claudius. In reacting to other elements, he's more confused. He completely breaks down when he learns his father was killed without the proper rites, which fits the Wittenbergian Christian ideals Hamlet often exalts. Murder is one thing, but murder with the express purpose of sending one to Hell is quite another. The reaction highlights not how brutal the murder was (as flashback sequences tend to do), but how cowardly it was. Claudius poisons a sleeping man, and does not even give him the chance to say a prayer. In other words, he didn't plan for Hamlet Sr. to even wake up and confront him. To Hamlet, that makes the sin greater still (as one might suppose royalty of this era would have proper rules for coups). A slight change in the script has the two characters share how horrible this all is. Hamlet says "O, horrible! O, horrible!" and the Ghost confirms it, "most horrible!".

Then, the Ghost simply backs away, out of shot, and Hamlet lets ou a profound scream and collapses.
Jacobi has his Hamlet take a quick dip into madness here, but does he ever come out of it? That would be telling. In the speech that follows, he looks at each of his hands in turn and then slaps himself repeatedly on the head on the line "So, uncle, there you are". It is a physical representation of having emptied his mind of everything save the thing he hates. He hits himself because that's all he is now, the mirror of Claudius (who must kill a family member). With Jacobi's mercurial Hamlet, the performance changes from moment to moment, so it's hard to say at this point if he walks away from the edge the Ghost led him to.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I.v.The Ghost's Tale - Olivier (1948)

Olivier's version of the Ghost is an off-putting creature. Everything about it makes you uneasy, which is at once its power and its weakness. It is very hard to empathize with this stiff-faced puppet, with its badly synchronized lip movement and strange whispering tone. Sometimes, the blurry lenses and obscuring smoke are quite effective at creating this otherworldly being. At other times, it just looks like a great big smudge. The technical considerations tend to create some very static shots through this whole sequence.
Olivier changes it up near the halfway point, as the story of the murder is told, and we're allowed to see it, or at least a version of it, when the camera moves in on the back of Hamlet's head. This avant-garde maneuver is ambiguous. On the one hand, you'd think that it would be Hamlet's imagination because the flashback is in his head. However, the camera's behavior in the film is often that of a floating spirit, moving around Elsinore looking for action, often from strange vantage points. Though the Ghost is standing in front of Hamlet, there is something about the flashback that makes it the Ghost's and not Hamlet's.
Hamlet Sr. sleeps through the poisoning and wakes up when pain strikes. The poisoner's face is obscured by the mists around the scene. When the king turns around and sees his murderer's face, so do we (if through a haze). Now, Hamlet already knows the identity of the poisoner because the Ghost prefaced his tale with this revelation. Why then don't we see Claudius from the start of the memory? We are definitely experiencing the murder from the king's point of view, so could this be his spirit entering Hamlet's mind and showing him these images? It's perhaps no wonder it unhinges his mind. There's a nice editing choice as the vision ends. All we see is the king's hand reaching for its killer and then dying. Hamlet reaches for it as the two scenes are mixed together, as again a director attempts to connect father and son through the veil of death.

The Ghost leaves as he arrived, with tell-tale pulsing heart beats that affect the camera as much as the sound. Hamlet swoons and keels over. The camera (again, I suspect the Ghost's spirit) flies up and comes through clouds. When he awakes, he's whirling his arms about, throwing his sword down and going from manic to despondent at a second's notice.
Since Hamlet is alone with his thoughts, it seems like Olivier has chosen to make him mad at this point. He's not (entirely?) faking it for the benefit of the Court later.

Monday, July 5, 2010

I.v.The Ghost's Tale - Branagh (1996)

Branagh creates a small patch of hell/purgatory in Denmark for the encounter between Hamlet and the Ghost: blasted trees and smoke coming out of cracks in the earth. The look is extreme enough that you'd believe Hamlet to be transported to this halfway place so that his friends, who are supposed to be following close behind, cannot find him until the Ghost finishes its speech. At first, the Ghost is just a disembodied voice, but soon appears, armored and floating above ground, eyes so blue they are a supernatural white.

The often over the top Brian Blessed plays the Ghost, but is suitably transformed by the performance. First, there's the make-up that makes him paler than his usual self, and the distinctive angles of the "beaver", following those of his own face. But beyond that is the way he delivers the speech. Where Blessed excels at boisterousness, here he only whispers. This reigns in his great ego and plays on the intimacy of the scene. A secret (and an equally secret mission) is imparted. That intimacy carried through in the visuals, with tight close-ups dominating. As the murder is revealed, we get tighter than is comfortable, on the characters' mouths.
It's part of a visual triptych, getting very close to their mouths and eyes, and on the bleeding ear of the murdered king. They are visuals emblematic of what is "foul, strange and unnatural". This is an ugly murder and the film uses flashbacks to show it - gory, painful and distressing. Even Claudius is shaken by how violent it all is. The flashbacks show us the snowbound orchard in which Hamlet Sr. sleeps, and it has a fairy tale quality.
The beauty of the environment is in deep contrast with what happens there, and with the blasted wasteland of the present-day scene. Denmark will soon go from this to the "unweeded garden" of Hamlet's first soliloquy. The flashbacks also give us a glimpse into Hamlet's family life as he puts the pieces together. Things that used to perhaps only rankle now seem to him entirely sinister. In particular, there's a scene in which the whole family, uncle and all, play some version of shuffleboard.
Hamlet's father, in these shots, appears as an entirely positive figure, noble and loving. Of course, Hamlet's memory may be rose-tinted. We see that father and son have a particular bond, but also that they leave Gertrude behind to have fun with Claudius. What used to be innocent and friendly hugging now appears to be an adulterous seduction. These were the privileged relationships before the play's action. Again, this is all in Hamlet's imagination, which doesn't confirm the Ghost's honesty. The flashes to the murder do imply it, but it remains a matter of interpretation.

As the Ghost departs, Hamlet reaches for his hand, but it fades away. He falls to the ground ("coupling hell") and the music swells. This is a moment of decision. Branagh drools a lot in the next speech, which is rife for interpretation. If he's clearing his mental table to leave only his father's revenge, we might see this as Hamlet leaving behind the niceties of courtly politeness. Or he may be losing his mind, becoming more animalistic and less self-aware. This would go against his father's edict that he "taint not [his] mind", but then, the whole play is about Hamlet tainting his mind with madness and/or doubt.
He swears on his sword, kissing it, something he will ask his friends to do in the next section. The kiss is part of the overall intimacy of the scene and there is no doubt sexual allegory to be found in his coupling the earth, kissing a sword, and then apparently starting the next act by renouncing Ophelia. The "baser matter" that he rejects includes the pleasures of the body (something his puritan ideals weren't far from already), embracing his revenge (sword), calamitous situation (hell) and his nation (earth) instead.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I.v.The Ghost's Tale

I've split Scene 5 into two beats - the first with Hamlet and the Ghost, the second between Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus. The first is a long piece of exposition, but it sets up the action (or inaction, if you will) of the play. Directors must here find a balance between making a visual meal of the Ghost's appearance, and keeping the audience focused on the words. Some haves tried flashbacks to to the day of the murder, but most have let the actor do the heavy lifting. There is more at stake in this decision than first meets the eye. If you show flashbacks, you are implying the Ghost's account is true, grounding the words in a reality the audience can think back to. It's a legitimate choice, but one that removes at least one layer of ambiguity to the Ghost/Hamlet relationship. Or does it? Depending on how it is staged, the Ghost may "flashing" to a fiction, or Hamlet may be flashing to his own imagination.

As usual, the full text follows in italics, with some comments from me throughout.[SCENE V. Another part of the platform.]
[Enter GHOST and HAMLET]
HAMLET: Where wilt thou lead me? speak; I'll go no further.
GHOST: Mark me.
HAMLET: I will.
GHOST: My hour is almost come,
When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.

For fans of the DIShonest Ghost theory, this opening must be important evidence. We've just had a scene shift, and the Ghost has gone from appearing (around midnight) to needing to leave soon (dawn). And Hamlet has to stop it and initiate the conversation. If he hadn't, would the Ghost have led him to those tormenting fires? The implication is there for those who wish to see it (though few have pursued the idea of an evil Ghost on the silver screen).

HAMLET: Alas, poor ghost!
GHOST: Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold.
HAMLET: Speak; I am bound to hear.
GHOST: So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.
GHOST: I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

That Hamlet Sr. was murdered without Confession or Last Rites we know from later in the speech. Less time is spent thinking about what he needed to confess. "Foul crimes" may cover more than the normal wages of war. In this line, Shakespeare implies that Hamlet Sr. may not be any better than his brother Claudius. Ironically, in a speech that talks a lot about listening and ears, Hamlet does not pick up on this. Compare to his later admission to Ophelia that he is proud, revengeful and ambitious. The same violence or sin is inside him, but everything remains merely potential.

Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,

To Hamlet, Denmark is (or becomes) a prison. There is an interesting comparison to be made between the Ghost imprisoned in Hell/Puragory, but allowed free at night to cause havoc, and the living Hamlet walking freely about trapped in his own angst and unable to do anything about it.

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love--
GHOST: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
HAMLET: Murder!
GHOST: Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
HAMLET: Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.

Hamlet paints himself as a potential avenging angel, a contrast to the hellish metaphors used by the Ghost.

GHOST: I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,

There is a strong theme about remembrance in the play - how long should one grieve and respect the departed? - which mixes with the hellish visions of the Ghost here. The river Lethe takes your memory and the Ghost warns Hamlet not to let himself forget him. If a director or actor wants the Ghost to be imaginary, it is useful to note that the Ghost seems to share Hamlet's own concerns about his apparently forgotten father.

Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear:
'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.

The story of Hamlet Sr.'s murder evokes the Garden of Eden. He is Adam, Hamlet's progenitor, and Claudius is Satan; Gertrude as Eve as a role to play. Note also the first mention of the King's ear, which in the usual royal metaphor, is also that of Denmark. There is a pun at work here. He was physically poisoned through the ear, while Denmark was metaphorically poisoned by being fooled into accepting a new status quo.

HAMLET: O my prophetic soul! My uncle!

According to Borges, the worst line Shakespeare ever wrote.

GHOST: Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,--
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!--won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen:

The Ghost starts not with the murder, but with the love affair. Are we to take it that adultery was committed before murder?

O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!

Again, this mirrors Hamlet's own feelings about his mother's new union. If the Ghost is a figment of his imagination, it would share them.

But virtue, as it never will be moved,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed,
And prey on garbage.
But, soft! methinks I scent the morning air;
Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,

The Royal body is here described as a city, lest we forget that Denmark has also been abused.

And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark'd about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:

This will of course play off Hamlet refusing to kill Claudius while he prays.

O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once!

Throughout the speech, the Ghost is careful not to implicate Gertrude in Claudius' sins, even if we know full well that it takes two to tango. The best explanation is that the Ghost is still in love with her, which doesn't necessarily point to an honest Ghost. His blind love may lead him to get Hamlet to kill Claudius out of jealousy. (Except we know Claudius is guilty.)

The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And 'gins to pale his uneffectual fire:

Another bizarre animal reference in the Ghost's speech, after that of the "porpentine" (porcupine). Between those and the serpent, the Ghost creates an atmospheric wordscape that is both surreal and foul, where staging and set dressing may not have that option.

Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.
HAMLET: O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;

The implied stage direction is that Hamlet throw himself to the ground (to "couple hell").

And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter: yes, by heaven!

Hamlet will soon break this promise, filling his head with all sorts of things. Perhaps it takes the whole of the play to purge away all thoughts that do not have to do with revenge. Or perhaps Hamlet comes to realize that his revenge intersects everything he's ever thought about. "Unmixing" is not possible. The book metaphor, fitting for a professional student, foreshadows the fact that he is not a man of action, but a man of study.

O most pernicious woman!

Already, Hamlet has forgotten his father's edict that his mother be absolved of wrong-doing. Hamlet is such a powerful character (or mind, if you will) that he is never forced to follow the expected plot. He follows his own thoughts where they will lead him, aggressively ignoring other characters and their roles in the drama. He's just been given a mission, and the proper hero would complete it, overcoming complications along the way. But Hamlet is his own complication and does not follow the usual rules of drama, somehow trying to approach true self-determination despite being a "written" character.

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,--meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark:
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word;
It is 'Adieu, adieu! remember me.'
I have sworn 't.

Through the next few articles, we'll also be able to look at how the Ghost was played, since Scene 5 features its first lines (and the first of only two speaking appearances).